Thanks to Mike Anthony of the Courant for filling in for me on this while I am on vacation.
Pat Summitt was the face of women’s basketball before it was on TV, before anyone paid much attention to it. She was the face of women’s basketball as the sport began to take steps toward national acceptance and popularity. And she was still the face of women’s basketball — and its most successful coach — as it gained worldwide attention, generated money at the most prominent universities and made stars of its best players.
There are few people in history who have done more for or done more with his or her sport. And now, after 38 years on the Tennessee sideline, 1,098 victories and eight national titles, Summitt is stepping away from the spotlight she helped create.
Summitt, who turns 60 in June, said Wednesday she no longer will be a head coach. Longtime assistant Holly Warlick will take over as coach of the Lady Vols. It will be strange to see anyone but Summitt, she of the orange pant suits and steely-eyed stares, on the Tennessee sideline. But that will be the case when the 2012-13 season opens in November.
The great UConn rival is stepping aside.
Summitt will remain with the Tennessee as “head coach emeritus,” meaning she will become a liaison between the basketball program and athletic department, remain involved in on-campus recruiting and continue to interact with members of the program. But she’s done drawing up plays, done calling timeouts.
This decision was accelerated by Summitt’s diagnosis of early-onset dementia, which she announced last year. That medical condition, which could worsen in time, does not mean Summitt’s life in or out of basketball is over — it has just changed.
“I’ve loved being the head coach at Tennessee for 38 years, but I recognize that the time has come to move into the future and to step into a new role,” Summitt said in a statement. “I support Holly Warlick being named the next head coach, and I want to help ensure the stability of the program going forward. I would like to emphasize that I fully intend to continue working as head coach emeritus, mentoring and teaching life skills to our players, and I will continue my active role as a spokesperson in the fight against Alzheimer’s through the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund.
“If anyone asks, you can find me observing practice or in my office. Coaching is the great passion of my life, and the job to me has always been an opportunity to work with our student-athletes and help them discover what they want. I will continue to make them my passion. I love our players and my fellow coaches, and that’s not going to change.”
Summitt was part of the inaugural class of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999 and was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield in 2000. She coached the Vols to 16 SEC regular season championships, 16 SEC tournament championships and 18 Finals Fours. She was SEC coach of the year eight times and national coach of the year seven times. Her national championship seasons were in 1987, 1989, 1991, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2007 and 2008.
Summitt was respected even where he was reviled — right here in Connecticut. When Summitt announced her medical condition last year, she soon acknowledged an outpouring of support from the UConn fan base.
A wonderful, sometimes testy, sometimes petty, rivalry developed between UConn and Tennessee, and Summitt and Geno Auriemma, as UConn rose to national prominence beginning with its first national title in 1995 — when the Huskies defeated the Vols in the regular season and again in the NCAA championship game.
The programs played annually until Summitt stopped it before the 2008-09 season. Tennessee won the last three meetings, cutting UConn’s overall advantage to 13-9. UConn won all four national championship games the two teams played — 1995, 2000, 2003 and 2004. The teams also met in the national semifinals in 1996 and 2002, with the Lady Vols winning in 1996.
Almost as entertaining as the brilliant basketball on display in the series? The verbal jabs thrown back-and-forth from Storrs to Knoxville. When the series ended, the sport and nation craved for more — because UConn and Tennessee, head and shoulders above everyone else, had established themselves as the two best programs with the two best coaches, a man and a women of very different background and demeanor. UConn-Tennessee, for a while, was believed to be the only women’s game many men’s fans cared about.
“Pat’s vision for the game of women’s basketball and her relentless drive pushed the game to a new level and made it possible for the rest of us to accomplish what we did,” Auriemma said in a statement. “In her new role, I’m sure she will continue to make significant impacts on the University of Tennessee and to the game of women’s basketball as a whole. I am thrilled for Holly as this opportunity is well deserved and Pat will be a huge asset to her moving forward.”
Summitt is the all-time winningest basketball coach in NCAA history, men or women, and her eight titles are second only to John Wooden, the legendary coach of the UCLA men’s team. Her career record is 1,098-208. She never had a losing season and was so successful that the university reportedly showed interest in making her coach of the men’s team on more than one occasion.
She was a player on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team that won Silver in Montreal, and the coach of the 1984 Olympic team that won Gold in Los Angeles.
“When you think of women’s basketball, you think of Pat Summitt,” Beth Bass, CEO of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, said in a statement. “She is the first female coach whose name literally has become synonymous with her sport. Of course, we all know her record — the thousand victories, the eight national championships, and so on — but we’ll never be able to adequately put into words the contributions Pat has made to women’s basketball and, specifically, to the women’s basketball coaching profession. She is a mentor, role model and inspiration to so many. All coaches of girls’ and women’s basketball have her to thank in large part for the success our game now enjoys.”
Summitt received her diagnosis after visiting the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., last May, after noticing a change in her cognitive behavior and response. She was losing her keys much too often, arriving late to work and forgetting important aspects of her own playbook.
She decided to continue coaching, giving assistants more responsibility, and her final season ended at 27-9 and in the Elite Eight.
“I plan to continue to be your coach,” Summitt said in a statement shortly after her diagnosis. “Obviously, I realize I may have some limitations with this condition since there will be some good days and some bad days.”